Friday, February 28, 2014

Crime and Punishment for Stealing Plastic

While much of the public perceives plastic as merely junk, criminal activity suggests otherwise. The fact that people are getting caught and sent to jail or fined for stealing plastics strongly suggests that there is something of real value here. I've written before of thieves stealing plastics in Los Angeles and Mexico, but now this thievery has jumped the ocean and landed in the UK. Two employees of the bread baker Warburtons are on trial:
"A criminal conspiracy operated by Warburtons employees made money from recycling half a MILLION pounds worth of stolen bread baskets – a court has heard. Warburtons delivery driver Paul Rogers and his bakery boss Robert Cooper are accused of stealing at least 60 lorry loads of plastic bread trays and selling them to a recycling plant, owned by Paul Matthews. Preston Crown Court heard the two men hatched the plan along with PM Plastics boss Matthews after the well-known bread-making company started recycling its own baskets at the Darwen, Lancashire, plant in November 2010."
Note that in this case (as well as the previously noted case in LA), the plastics stolen were being chipped and ground into recycled plastic, proving that there is quite a demand and even more money to be made in recycling plastics.

The article doesn't state exactly what the penalty could be, but I'm sure that the court will make sure that it delivers a good wallop to the breadbasket. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Previous Years
February 28, 2013 - 3 Tidbits on 3-D Printing

February 28, 2012 - How Sweet It Is

February 28, 2013 - How to Kill a Project

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I'm Glad I Don't Have This Guy's Job

I've been fortunate to have always enjoyed what I've been working on. Part of that is self-selection that comes from self-awareness. Automotive? Not a chance. Food packaging? Get outta here! But even those options look much better than the job that Allen Rasmussen has. You see, Rasmussen has what I would think is the most difficult job in the entire plastics industry - finding a sustainable material to make Lego blocks from.

As Rasmussen said himself:
"I always hear people say: ‘Oh, Lego. That’s great. I played with Lego when I was a kid, and now I’ve passed it on to my son and to his son now, and it lasts. It’s perfect.’ And I’m really torn between that,” Rasmussen said. “On the one side, I want to say: ‘Thank you. We make a good product.’ On the other side, I want to say: ‘You’ve just shown why it is my job is so damn difficult.’"

Legos are currently made from ABS, that kludge of styrene-butadiene rubber embedded in an styrene-acrylonitrile matrix. The first letters of the three monomers gives us the acronym. It's used for making all sorts of parts of durable goods such as vacuum cleaners, keyboards and mouses, etc. It's a nice material to work with, but finding any alternative to it, let alone a sustainable alternative would be as challenging as finding a US Olympic speedskater saying nice things about their new skinsuits.

People have discredited the effort to find a sustainable material due to the target date of 2030, a date that would seem to imply a less-than-serious effort. But I think it will take all that time. Lego is an undisputably high quality product and whatever they decide to work with in the end will also meet those same high quality standards. Children can be the most demanding of all consumers, but in this case, the parents are demanding too. They want new Legos to provide the same positive experience that they had when they were children.

I just glad that I don't have to provide it myself. Good luck, Allen. You're going to need it.

Previous Years
February 26, 2013 - Poly(aryl happy face)?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Drops in a Bucket

As I write this column on a cold mid-January late February morning, North Americans are finding out that the phrase ‘cold snap’ is terribly outdated and that we should be using ‘polar vortex’ instead...

Wait, that sounds familiar. Oh yeah, now I remember. That was something I wrote back in mid-January. The irony is that we, or at least Minnesota and Wisconsin, are about to have another polar vortex thrown at us here in late February after 10 inches of heavy white snow fell overnight. This winter has seriously worn out its welcome.

And that stuff I wrote back in mid-January? It was published online yesterday for the Nature Chemistry Blogroll and is called "Drops in a Bucket". If you want to know the connection between the polar vortex and a drop in a bucket, then be sure to check it out (for free).

Previous Years
February 21, 2013 - Polyurethane Balls in Flour

February 21, 2012 - Recycling Wine Bottles

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Are the Challenges of Introducing Biobased Polymers New or Just the Same-Old Same-Old?

History has shown that introducing a new polymeric resin is a difficult matter. Specifically, I am speaking of polymers that are used for molding or otherwise creating articles. For reasons that I'm not exactly sure about, new coating resins are constantly arriving, but that is another subject for another day. As for polymers used in making articles, there are already so many existing materials covering such a wide range of properties that it is difficult to find huge gaps that need filling. Sure, we would love to have PEEK performance for a PE price, but we know that isn't going to happen anytime soon (if ever).

I said that history has supported this conclusion, and I have blogged about this in the past. Ultem took 15 years to finally show a profit and Dow has filled entire landfills with their withdrawn products that never succeeded like they anticipated (or least needed them to succeed).

This last decade has seen a lot of attempted new polymer introductions, particularly those that are "bio-based" (to whatever degree you wish to define it). Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA's), the plastic made from microbial life (the microbes store their excess energy as PHA, much like we humans store our excess energy as triglycerides) have gotten nowhere despite the efforts of even such big name players as P & G. PLA has been a little more successful, but it still is limited by a number of performance limitations (such as heat much above 65 oC - NO SOUP FOR YOU!). Cereplast has filed for bankruptcy this week, further casting doubts about the viability of these efforts.

Yet I see this as exactly the same challenges that Ultem, Carilon, Index, Questra and other new resins have faced, while another blogger is suggesting that this is a unique challenge only for "green" resins. What do you think - is this a new, unique challenge that is part of the current environment, or something that is inherent challenging for any new resin, bio-based or otherwise?

Previous Years
February 20, 2013 - Rumor has it...

February 20, 2012 - A Green Polyethylene - Is It Worth the Effort?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What Else Do We Need To Ban Besides Azodicarbonamide (Subway, Are You Listening?)

Subway Sandwiches announced last week that they are no longer going to be making their bread from flour that has azodicarbonamide in it. This is the result of an effort by "The Food Babe" to have the additive removed since it is also used to "make yoga mats and shoe rubber". The logic of this is clear: if a chemical is used to make polymers, it should not be used in food. Since I have good knowledge of polymer chemistry, let me suggest some other chemicals that are used in both food and polymers and so that the Food Babe can take up the charge against these dangerous chemicals as well.

  • Water. Water is used in the manufacture of emulsions polymers such as all the water-based paints that are used around the world. And water is used as a foaming agent in making polyurethane foams. Such as for yoga mats. The water reacts with the isocyanate to form a carbamic acid, an unstable entity which gives off CO2 as a gas to make the foam.
    Ironically, azodicarbonamide is added to polyurethanes to foam them as well. So here we have 2 chemicals, water and azodicarbonamide, that are both used in making bread and foaming polyurethanes. Obviously both should be banned. The Food Babe's job is only half way done.
But there are other ingredients that we eat that are also used in making plastics and rubbers. Let me continue.
  • Vitamin E. Plastic manufacturers will add this to their materials as an antioxidant. We must protect our food supply and ban vitamin E.
  • Calcium carbonate. This is commonly used in plastics as a filler and sometimes as a colorant to make plastics appear white-ish. It must be removed from our food supply. If you are looking for calcium supplements or antacids, you will soon have to look elsewhere.
  • Stearic acid. This is a major component in beef and pig fat, and it finds its way into plastics as a slip agent - something that helps make plastic films a little bit slippery so that they can be processed on high speed equipment without catching and tearing. It will take some clever genetic engineering to develop new breeds of beef and pork that do not store energy reserves as stearic acid, but it is critical that this be done. The Food Babe doesn't have issues with GMO's, does she? Oh no, she does. This might be a problem...
I could go on for pages and pages, but the point is already clear. Just because something is used in making plastic doesn't mean that it also can't be used as a food ingredient. The Food Babe's argument is clearly chemophobic but worse yet, it is plastiphobic. It associates the chemical with plastics. If azodicarbonamide was used in making ceramics or metals or paper, would the Food Babe have gotten anywhere as far with her complaint? No, it was because of associating the material with plastic that she scored points.

The worst result of this is that the Food Babe and her supporters will now feel empowered to take on other chemicals, not because of scientific data, but because of fear and playing with emotions. We deserve better than this.

Previous Years

February 11, 2011 - Top Killing with Oobleck

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Day I Helped Make a Woman Cry

One of last week's Super Bowl commercials had a personal connection for me. It came late in the game when most people had already shut it off or at least tuned out. It was the Microsoft "Technology" commercial. In it was a small snippet of this video from a couple of years ago:
The women in it has just had her recently implanted hearing aid turned on and was hearing for the first time in her life. I cannot begin to imagine the sensation.

This was a device made by a company that I used to work for, Envoy Medical. I won't go into all the details, but when I was hired, the product had horrendous corrosion issues. (Not surprising, since your body is basically a 0.9 wt% solution of NaCl at 37 oC.) Plastics to the rescue. Silicones and parylenes and other materials did a nice job of stopping the runaway electrochemistry. With the problems fixed, the device regained regulatory approval and is now being successfully implanted.

While it is never what I expected when I started working with polymers, I can honestly say that the proudest moment of my career has been the day that I helped make a woman cry.

Previous Years
February 7, 2012 - Well, What is the Viscosity of Fudge?

Februaru 7, 2011 - Withholding Information

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Is the Word "Plastic" Destined for the Trash Heap?

I just discovered the Ngram Viewer in Google Books and am having some fun with it. The Viewer creates graphs of the use percentage of a word over time in the books of the Google Books collection. As you might expect, words like "thee", "thy" and "thine" are dying out:
Strangely, "plastic" seems to have peaked:
and it's even worse for "polyethylene" and "polythene":
and worst yet for "rubber":
I have no idea why this would be occurring. It's not as if plastics are losing their place in society, even if many now view them with contempt. I do realize that these are percentages and not actual word counts, so maybe the answer is that more and more books are written that are without these words. But even that is hard to imagine since "plastic" in particular has taken on additional meanings that it never had before. Maybe the answer is in this plot:
If "plastic" is being used less, another word must be being used instead, and it looks like "resin" might be it. It's use is also dropping, but not at the same rate as "plastic". So is "resin" the new "plastic"?

Previous Years

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Curved-Window Death Ray Comes to My Backyard

You may recall that in my past employment, I worked for a company that was owned by a window manufacturer. Although I had exceedingly little to do with the owners' window business (by choice from BOTH ends), I still learned many details about windows. One of the more interesting aspects was what could happen when the exactly right combination of window, temperature(s) and sunlight all came together unexpectedly. In those rare sets of circumstances, you could have the window glass curved in a concave manner so that it focusses the sunlight to produce an intense beam, jokingly call "The Death Ray". Sometimes it's hot enough to melt vinyl siding and othertimes it's hot enough to burn human hair.

This last weekend, I had my own "death ray" in the backyard of my house. Take a look at this picture:
This picture was taken looking west with my house and the curved glass windows are to the right. The sun is low in the sky to the left as the shadows of the partially melted snowmen indicate. Ignoring the trail that I had to make for our Welsh Terrier in the deep snow, in the very center of the picture, you can see several sprite-like caustics (that is the technical term, and it has nothing to do with the strong bases that we play with in the lab) that are melting tracks into the surface of the snow. As the sun moves to the west, these caustics move to east (closer to the spot I was standing). It was very cold when I took this picture, ~ 10 oF (-12 oC). The snow on the roof of the house wasn't even melting, despite have a 45o pitch towards the sun and yet the sunlight from this death ray was hot enough to melt the snow.

What is even more intriguing is this close up of a caustic:
The caustic is moving from the right to the left in the picture and you can see how it is widening the track as it goes. It almost appears that you can see a small separation between each day's track, but I would want a few more sunny days worth of data to confirm that.

I've been waiting all winter to get these pictures and it hasn't been easy. We've had an endless stream of cold followed by snow followed by cold followed by...which has prevented these tracks from being visible on a weekend so that I could take the pictures. Things finally worked out for me. If I had daily midday access to this site (I don't due to work hours), it would be fun to cover one of the windows with cardboard and remove it for a few minutes at noon each day. The spots that would melt the ice would then take the partial shape of the annalemma (reversed due to the reflection the light undergoes).

Previous Years
February 3, 2011 - Bye Bye Mercury Thermometers

February 3, 2011 - Aspen Research is Dead! Long Live Aspen Research!

February 3, 2010 - We're Just Leaches

February 3, 2009 - Yet More on Dow Chemical